When the Esmeralda docks in ports around the world, its crew makes sure the “White Lady,” as they call their ship, is ready for visitors. The ship has made more than 300 port calls as Chile’s “floating embassy,” spreading goodwill and the message of democracy through diplomatic visits around the globe. Its deck has received thousands of dignitaries, military commanders, media and visitors.
“We spread a message of brotherhood around the world when we encounter other cultures, roots and traditions, contributing in a very special way by spreading knowledge of our nation and our country’s foreign policy,” said the ship’s commander Capt. Victor Alejandro Zanelli Suffo.
Originally built as a training ship for Spain, the Esmeralda is now a beacon of change, progress and transformation for Chile. Although it reportedly served as a prison ship under Gen. Augusto Pinochet in the 1970s, the ship has since resumed the peaceful missions for which it was intended — friendship and training.
The students assigned to Esmeralda face intense challenges, long oceanic crossings and adverse weather conditions. For Esmeralda students, their experiences at sea will change their lives forever. Midshipman Juan Antonio Widow wanted to be a sailor since he was a child, a passion inherited from his father, a naval officer.
Now, his dream takes him onto the deck of the Esmeralda, the second tallest and longest sailing ship in the world, where he is training to become a naval officer on the steel-hulled, four-mast vessel. Being part of the crew is a unique experience. “It’s an intense phase in which the know-how learned in the naval academy begins to be carried out through practice,” the 21-year-old midshipman said.
Midshipman Widow believes his fellow sailors have special qualities that allow them to be aboard the Esmeralda, like “patience, discipline and will, besides an unbreakable spirit of service to the country.” After seven months on board, he has learned the importance of teamwork, collaboration and friendship. Only officers from Chile’s Arturo Prat Naval Academy and the 15 to 20 top enlisted students from the Alejandro Navarete apprentice school can be part of the instructional program for a year.
According to Captain Zanelli, the training must ensure midshipman and enlisted sailors achieve all the academic and practical objectives of the training. “They must develop diverse tasks which drive them to face professional and personal challenges as part of an endless number of parallel activities that require maximum efficiency,” he said.
The curriculum includes classes in maneuvers, navigation, damage control, leadership and administration. The instruction encourages values and shows students the commitment of a navy career. The captain affirms students will be prepared to fulfill the duty they have sworn to Chile and its military.
Sailor Mauricio Rodrigo Fonseca, a 23-year-old who came on board 11 months ago as a corpsman, is prepared to be a sailor. He chose his career, initially enticed by the distinguished appeal of the navy’s uniform, but quickly realized the opportunity, adventure and the significance of his new career path. “I discovered the true essence of the navy, to sail, which has marked in me different expectations to the ones I had before this cruise,” he said.
In each port, the crew takes part in traditional military protocol, including participating in parades, laying wreaths at military monuments and exchanging ideas. This binds long-time friendships and encourages camaraderie among countries. The ship has a 308-member crew, including 23 officers, 80 midshipman, 142 seamen and 63 sailors in training. The Esmeralda has no female sailors yet, but once the ship is retrofitted, women will join the crew when it sets sail in 2011.
In 2008, the Esmeralda celebrated its 53rd instructional cruise. Before it returned home to Valparaiso, Chile, in November, it docked in Buenos Aires, Argentina. It had been out to sea since June, and traveled to Guayaquil, Ecuador; Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago; Casablanca, Morocco; Cadiz, Spain; Split, Croatia; Istanbul, Turkey; Haifa, Israel; Pireo, Greece; Alexandria, Egypt; Cochin, India; and Cape Town, South Africa. Traveling on international waters is not always easy or safe. Captain Zanelli said there is always the possibility of an attack — vandalism, piracy and terrorism. But the crew takes precautionary measures in case of such an incident. And the ship also relies on local authorities for additional support.
Sailing around the Gulf of Aden, in front of Eritrea and Somalia — a maritime zone where acts of piracy and ship abductions are common — was a challenge for them, Captain Zanelli said. “Our passage through these waters, which took almost three days of navigation, forced us to redouble our vigilance efforts and adopt special security measures on board to repel any attack attempts.”
Just 25 miles from their location, pirates captured two freighters. Three weeks before the cruise ended, the captain considered it a success, with no security incidents. During its service, the Esmeralda has sailed more than 1.3 million nautical miles, which equals 60 trips around the world. She has participated in a host of events, including Operation Sail, held in New York, in 1964, 1976 and 1989; and in the Work Sail in Osaka, Japan, in 1983, 1982 and 1990.
*Spirit of the Esmeralda*
International integration is part of Esmeralda’s instructional program. Captain Zanelli said Chile has educational agreements with naval communities around the world. “We consider the exchange with members from other navies a great benefit, since we give and receive very valuable professional experience in different areas. This is part of our essence since navies, by nature, have always been globalized.”
In 2008, six navy officers from Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Mexico and Peru were part of the exchange. Also, one officer each from Colombia, South Korea, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Morocco, Japan, Kenya, Egypt, China, Italia, Spain, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, France and Israel were aboard for approximately two months.
Chief Petty Officer Francisco Echeverria, who has been assigned to the ship for nine years, has seen different generations of students. He remembers their enthusiasm when on board. “You can see how they put forth the effort to learn quickly,” the 45-year-old boatswain said. He feels satisfied when he meets apprentices after they progress in their careers, a relationship good for the sailors and the school. “Years later, when we meet again, we remember everything we experienced on board.”
Other Latin America navy training ships include Argentina’s Libertad and President Sarmiento; Brazil’s Sagres; Venezuela’s Simon Bolívar; Colombia’s Gloria; Ecuador’s Guayas; and Mexico’s Cuauhtémoc.
After almost a decade of crossing the ocean, Chief Petty Officer Echeverria said he has learned not to be afraid of the sea, but to respect it. For him, a sailor’s life has constant challenges. But a well-prepared ship like the Esmeralda can weather them all. “The sea will always have secrets. For that reason, what better way is there to prepare than on a wind-powered vessel?”
After a cruise on the Esmeralda, the sailors are ready to sail into the light of Chile’s bright future.